Like arm barrier gestures, crossed legs are a signal that a negative or defensive attitude may exist. The purpose of crossing the arms on the chest was originally to defend the heart and upper body region and crossing the legs is an attempt to shield the genital area. Crossed arms also indicate a more negative attitude than do crossed legs, and the arms gesture is more obvious. Care should be taken when interpreting crossed leg gestures with women as many have been taught that this is how to ‘sit like a lady’. Unfortunately for them, however, the gesture can make them seem defensive.
There are two basic crossed leg-sitting conditions, the standard leg cross and the figure 4 leg lock.
The Standard Leg-Cross Position
One leg is crossed neatly over the other, usually the right over the left. This is the normal crossed-leg position used by European, British, Australian and New Zealand cultures and may be used to show a nervous, reserved or defensive attitude. However, this is usually a supportive gesture that occurs with other negative gestures and should not be interpreted in isolation or out of context. For example, people often sit like this during lectures or if they are on uncomfortable chairs for long periods. It is also common to see this gesture in cold weather. When the crossed legs gesture is combined with crossed arms (Figure 80), the person has withdrawn from the conversation. A sales person would be very foolish even to attempt to ask for a decision from a buyer when he has taken this pose, and the sales person should ask probing questions to uncover his objection. This pose is popular among women in most countries, particularly to show their displeasure with a husband or boyfriend.
The American Figure 4 Leg Lock Position
This leg cross indicates that an argumentative or competitive attitude exists. It is the sitting position used by many American males who have a competitive nature. This being the case, it is difficult to interpret the attitude of an American during a conversation, but it is quite obvious when this gesture is used by a British citizen.
I recently addressed a series of meetings in New Zealand where the audience comprised about 100 managers and 500 sales people. A highly controversial issue was being discussed – the treatment of sales people by corporations. A salesman who was well-known to the audience and who had a reputation as a stirrer was asked to address the group. As he took the stage, the managers, almost without exception, took the defensive pose shown in Figure 80, which showed that they felt threatened by what they thought the salesman was going to say. Their fears were well founded. The salesman raged about the poor quality of management in most corporations in that industry and said he felt that this was a contributing factor to the industry’s staffing problems. Throughout his speech the sales people in the audience were leaning forward showing interest, many using evaluation gestures, but the managers held their defensive positions. The salesman then changed his address to discuss what he believed the manager’s role should be in relation to the sales people. Almost as if they were players in an orchestra who had been given a command by the orchestra leader, the managers shifted to the competitive/argumentative position (Figure 81). It was obvious that they were mentally debating the salesman’s point of view and many later confirmed that this had been the case. I noticed, however, that several managers had not taken this pose. After the meeting I asked them why, and, although most said they had also disagreed with the salesman’s views, they were unable to sit in the figure 4 leg lock position for such reasons as obesity and arthritis.
In a selling situation it would be unwise to attempt to close the sale and ask for the order when the buyer takes this position. The sales person would need to use an open appeal, leaning forward with palms up and saying, ‘I can see you have some ideas on this. I’d be interested in your opinion’, and then sit back to signify that it is the buyer’s turn to speak. This gives the buyer an opportunity to tell you his opinion. Women who wear trousers or jeans are also observed sitting in the figure 4 position on occasions.
Figure 4 Leg Clamp
The person who has a hard and fast attitude in an argument or debate will often lock the figure 4 into place with one or both hands, using them as a clamp. This is a sign of the tough-minded, stubborn individual who may need a special approach to break through his resistance.
Standing Leg Cross Gestures
The next time you attend a meeting or function, you will notice small groups of people all standing with their arms and legs crossed (Figure 83). Observation will also reveal that they are standing at a greater distance from each other than the customary one, and that, if they are wearing coats or jackets, they are usually buttoned. If you were to question these people, you would find that one or all of them are strangers to the others in the group. This is how must people stand when they are among people whom they do not know well.
Now you notice another small group in which the people are standing with arms unfolded, palms exposed, coats unbuttoned, relaxed appearance, leaning on one foot with the other pointing towards other members of the group and moving in and out of each other’s intimate zones. Close investigation reveals that these people are friends or are known personally to each other. Interestingly, the people using the closed arms and legs stance may have relaxed facial expressions and conversation that sounds free and easy, but the folded arms and legs tell us that they are not relaxed or confident.
The next time you join a group of people who are standing in the open friendly stance but among whom you know no-one, stand with your arms and legs tightly crossed. One by one the other group members will cross their arms and legs and remain in that position until you leave them. Then walk away and watch how, one by one, the members of the group assume their original open pose once again!
The ‘Opening-Up’ Procedure
As people begin to feel comfortable in a group and get to know others in it, they move through an unwritten code of movements taking them from the defensive crossed arms and legs position to the relaxed open position. Studies of people in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America reveal that the standing ‘opening-up’ procedure is the same in each of these countries.
Stage l: Defensive position, arms and legs crossed (Figure 84).
Stage 2: Legs uncrossed and feet placed together in a neutral position.
Stage 3: The arm folded on top in the arm cross comes out and the palm is flashed when speaking but is not tucked back into the arm cross position. It holds the outside of the other arm.
Stage 4: Arms unfold and one arm gesticulates or may be placed on the hip or in the pocket.
Stage 5: One person leans back on one leg and pushes the other forward to point at the person whom he finds the most interesting
Alcohol can speed up this process or eliminate some of the stages.
Defensive or Cold?
Many people claim that they are not defensive but cross their arms or legs because they feel cold. This is often a cover-up and it is interesting to note the difference between a defensive stance and the way a person stands when he or she feels cold. First of all, when someone wants to warm his hands he normally thrusts them into the armpits rather than tucking them under the elbows, as is the case with a defensive arm-cross. Secondly, when a -person feels cold he may fold his arms in a type of body hug and when the legs are crossed they are usually straight, stiff and pressed hard against each other (Figure 86), as opposed to the more relaxed leg posture of the defensive stance or position.
People who habitually take a crossed arms or legs position prefer to say that they are cold or comfortable rather than to admit that they could be nervous, shy or defensive.
The Ankle-Lock Gesture
Crossing or folding the arms or legs suggests that a negative or defensive attitude exists, and this is also the case with the ankle lock gesture. The male version of the ankle lock is often combined with clenched fists resting on the knees or with the hands tightly gripping the arms of the chair (Figure 87). The female version varies slightly; the knees are held together, the feet may be to one side and the hands rest side by side or one on top of the other resting on the upper legs (Figure 88).
During more than a decade of interviewing and selling to people, our observation has revealed that, when the interviewee locks his ankles, he is mentally ‘biting his lip’. The gesture is one of holding back a negative attitude, emotion, nervousness or fear. For example, a lawyer friend of mine told me that he had often noticed that, just prior to a court hearing, the people who were involved in the case nearly always sat with their ankles tightly locked together. He also found that they had been waiting to say something or had been trying to control their emotional state.
When interviewing prospective employees, we noted that most interviewees locked their ankles at some point during the interview, indicating that they were holding back an emotion or attitude. In the initial stages of our research with this gesture, we found that asking questions about the interviewee’s feelings was often unsuccessful in unlocking his ankles and thus his mind. We soon discovered, however, that if the interviewer walked around to the interviewee’s side of the desk and sat beside him, removing the desk barrier, the interviewee’s ankles would often unlock and the conversation took on an open, more personal atmosphere.
We were recently advising a company on the effective use of the telephone to contact customers when we met a young man who had the unenviable job of calling customers who had not paid their accounts. We watched him make a number of calls and, although he sounded relaxed, we noticed that his ankles were locked together beneath his chair. I asked, ‘How do you enjoy this job?’ He replied, ‘Fine! It’s a lot of fun.’ This verbal statement was however, inconsistent with his non-verbal signals, although he did sound quite convincing. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. He paused for a moment, unlocked his ankles, turned towards me with open palms and said, ‘Well, actually, it drives me crazy!’ He then told me that he had received several calls from customers who had been rude to him and he had been holding back his feelings so as not to transmit them to the other customers. Interestingly, we have noticed that sales people who do not enjoy using the telephone sit in the locked ankles position.
Leaders in the field of negotiating tech- niques, Nierenberg and Calero, found that whenever one party locked his ankles during a negotiation it often meant that he was holding back a valuable concession. They found that, by using questioning techniques, they could often encourage him to unlock his ankles and reveal the concession.
There are always people who claim that they habitually sit in the ankle lock position, or for that matter, any of the negative arm and leg clusters, because they feel comfort- able. If you are one of these people, remember that any arm or leg position will feel comfortable when you have a defensive, negative or reserved attitude. Considering that a negative gesture can increase or prolong a negative attitude, and that other people interpret you as being defensive or negative, you would be well advised to practise using positive and open gestures to improve your self-confidence and relationships with others.
Women who were teenagers during the mini-skirt era crossed their legs and ankles for obvious, necessary reasons. Through habit, many of these women still sit in this position, which may make others misinterpret them; people may react toward these women with caution. It is important to take female fashion trends into consideration, particularly how these may affect the woman’s leg positions, before jumping to conclusions.
The Foot Lock
This gesture is almost exclusively used by women. The top of one foot locks around the other leg to reinforce a defensive attitude and, when this gesture appears, you can be sure that the woman has become a mental recluse or has retreated like a tortoise into her shell.
A warm, friendly, low-key approach is needed if you eventually hope to open this clam. This position is common to shy or timid women.
I recall an interview in which a new salesman was trying to sell insurance to a young married couple. The sale was unsuccessful and the new salesman could not understand why he had lost it, because he had followed the sales track perfectly. I pointed out that he had failed to notice that the woman was sitting with a tight foot lock position throughout the interview. Had the salesman understood the significance of this gesture, he could have involved her in the sales presentation, and might have achieved a better result.